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South girls are just short

DENTON | For some basketball teams, size matters most. For others, heart turns out to be the biggest asset.

When the two traits collide, it can spawn a thrilling and emotional basketball game that leaves players, coaches and even fans emotionally spent.

That’s exactly what happened Friday night in Denton as Lake Norman Charter edged the South Davidson girls 42-40 to advance to the quarterfinals of the 1-A state playoffs next week in Greensboro.

The visiting Knights started three players over 5-10, including 6-2 junior center Ezinne Mbamalu and they used their size advantage to control the first half, jumping out to a 26-12 halftime lead.

South Davidson struggled mightily in the early going missing their first six shots as Mbamalu blocked five Wildcat shots in the first quarter.

When Mbamalu wasn’t blocking shots, she was altering them. And when she wasn’t wreaking havoc on the defensive end, she was giving the Wildcats fits on the offensive side of the ball.

After South’s Holly Wall fed Hunter Sigmon inside to cut the Knights’ lead to five with 4:22 left in the second quarter, Lake Norman went on a 9-0 run to close the half and shock the spirited home crowd. Mbamalu’s seven first-half points matched her seven blocks and it looked as if South’s season would end in a blowout.

But, South — who entered the game on an 18-game winning streak — refused to quit. Larsen Sigmon scored 10 of the Wildcats’ next 12 points; but, how she scored them was just as important. Sigmon, South’s 5-4 point guard, hit three runners in the lane over the towering Mbamalu — providing the heart and fearlessness the Wildcats needed to claw back into the game.

After a South turnover, Larsen Sigmon stole the ball from the Knights’ Sierra Wiley and converted a layup to cut the Lake Norman lead to eight with 4:58 remaining. It was the first time since the 3:00 mark of the second quarter that South had cut the lead to single digits.

Sigmon’s aggressiveness also ignited the rowdy South Davidson crowd and sparked an 8-0 run that cut their deficit to two at 34-32. Larsen Sigmon scored four points and assisted her sister Madison Sigmon on two other baskets during the span that rattled the visitors.

Brittany Buckstad put back an offensive rebound to push the lead back to four with 2:15 remaining but South continued to battle back. Madison Sigmon made two free throws before Mbamalu got open inside to give the Knights a 38-34 lead.

Madison Sigmon then netted two more free throws to give her eight fourth-quarter points and get the Wildcats back to within two.

After South got a stop on the defensive end, Larsen Sigmon stepped to the line for a one-and-one — and an opportunity to tie the game with 1:08 remaining. The Knights rebounded Sigmon’s miss but Hunter Sigmon forced a jump ball and the possession arrow gave South the ball back, with a chance to square up the game .

As the home crowd was whipped into a frenzy and Lake Norman was panicking, Madison Sigmon found Hunter Sigmon open inside where she knocked down a jumper to force the first tie of the game.

With 28 seconds left in the game, Buckstad nailed two free throws, the last of her team-high 14 points, and Lake Norman lead 40-38.

Then with the clock winding down, Larsen Sigmon pushed the ball down court and banked in a jumper with 11 seconds remaining setting up Lake Norman for what looked to be a final possession.

On the inbounds play, following a Lake Norman timeout, Carolyn Huddy got behind the Wildcat defense, catching a length-of-the-court pass but she missed the layup. However, Knights sophomore Allison Bock snagged the rebound and scored her only points of the game to give Lake Norman a 42-40 lead with eight ticks of the clock remaining.

A tipped ball gave South Davidson the ball with six seconds left and a chance to make something special happen. Lake Norman trapped the ball in the corner but the Wildcats were able to rotate the ball to the left side of the lane but Mbamalu blocked Addie Grubb’s jumper at the buzzer to seal the win — and break South’s collective heart.

South coach Fonda Jackson said that her team “had the perfect setup (at the end of the game) and got the perfect shot but it just didn’t go in.”

Jackson was surprised that Grubb didn’t get the foul call against Mbamalu. “In a coach’s opinion, I thought she got fouled and I thought this will be perfect. I was thinking two free throws and free throws win games. I thought maybe we’d go to overtime. But it just didn’t happen,” a disappointed Jackson said.

Lake Norman coach Bobby Williams had high praise for South Davidson, especially Larsen Sigmon, who scored a game-high 22 points. “Their guard play, especially their point guard, was exceptional. She attacked the basket fearlessly and they played with poise. They caused us to panic and every time we panicked, they were like sharks in the water. I’ll be honest — I don’t think we had overtime in us. I was glad we finished in regulation.

“Of all the teams we beat this year, I respect that team more than anyone. They refused to lose. They just kept fighting. I mean there’s a lot of heart in that team. A lot of heart,” Williams added.

South, who ended their season at 25-3 and came within inches of advancing to the quarterfinals, showed the heart of a champion.

But, in this game it was size that mattered most.